December 17, 2004,
I have some advice for the real small-c conservatives and reactionaries in the debate over Social Security reform: Franklin Roosevelt is dead. Get over it. It seems every time I turn on the TV or the radio, I hear some opponent of reform whining that we're tinkering with FDR's "legacy." Who gives a rat's patoot?
Let's start with what should be obvious: If the current social-security system is a good deal, then it's a good deal. Period. If it's a bad deal for 300 million Americans, then it's a bad deal. Only a moron of ground-shaking proportions would argue that we should screw millions of low- and middle-income (or even, yes, rich) Americans out of a better retirement and their own money! out of respect to Franklin Delano Roosevelt's memory. What politician in his right mind would say, "Sure there's a better way, but we owe it to FDR to stick with this junk." I'm no fan of Henry Ford, but even if I thought he was the bomb, I can't imagine saying we owe it to Henry to keep driving Model Ts.
Now, almost no one rests his whole argument on this legacy thing, but even bringing it up as part of a larger case gives it too much weight. Remember, we're talking about trillions of dollars over the years. These dollars should have moral weight, particularly for liberals, who are constantly looking for new things to spend money on. If loyalty to FDR's memory costs us even a few billion dollars a year, that's a few billion dollars liberals might otherwise be able to spend on health care, school lunches, or scholarships.
This notion, that Social Security is some kind of secular tithe to the false god of FDR is intellectually and morally offensive. It is dishonest.
Of course, liberal mythology about the New Deal legend is, uh, legendary. Still, it's worth noting that the New Deal surely prolonged the Depression and did far less for poverty than the textbooks claim. The first point is not even particularly controversial. The second is debatable. But what isn't in dispute among scholars is that it was World War II, not the New Deal, that served to pull America out of its economic doldrums.
But in all the propaganda about FDR, a more salient point has been conveniently lost. It would be entirely in keeping with FDR's legacy to rip apart the Social Security system if there was even a chance that it could be improved. The overarching theme of FDR's entire governing philosophy, constantly touted by virtually his entire Brain Trust, was "experimentalism."
When Raymond Moley, a leading early Brain Truster, was asked to provide a philosophical justification for FDR's approach to government, he along with nearly all of the New Dealers cited Pragmatism. Moley even noted that FDR had studied under William James, the founder of Pragmatism, at Harvard. The historian Eric Goldman wrote of FDR, "he trusted no system except the system of endless experimentation." FDR himself made this point time and time again. "I have no expectation of making a hit every time I come to bat," he explained in a fireside chat. At Oglethorpe University, FDR declared, "this country needs bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something." And always and everywhere, FDR emphasized the important thing was to take action first, and fix the problems later.
Well, here's the problem. Social Security was launched when there were more than 40 workers carrying the costs of each retiree. Today there are three workers for each Social Security recipient, and we're heading to a 2-1 ratio soon. It sounds to me that, whatever its original merits, the experiment has run its course. FDR "batted" Social Security farther than most of his ideas. But it would be nice to believe that the man who derided "horse and buggy thinking" and who most famously said "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself" would look at all of this fear-mongering about how Social Security is the "third rail" of American politics with disdain (though he might have liked it, given his penchant for demagoguery).
This is the striking irony of today's liberal opposition to reforming Social Security. Liberals are supposed to embrace change and deride the dogmatic adherence to the past. Pragmatism, in particular, was conceived to serve as an acid for such rigidity. Yet liberals, for the last decade or so, cannot let go of the past, cannot get beyond their talk of lockboxes and liberal legacies long lost. How strange it is that "conservatism" is now the party of "bold experimentation" and "liberals" are the horse-and-buggy crowd.
(c) 2004 Tribune Media Services